The Red Road of Resistance

In 1994, when I first arrived in Montana to work for Red Thunder Incorporated (RTI), now known as Spirit Mountain Cultural Clan, on the Fort Belknap Native American reservation, environmental racism was a fairly new term.

Organ cancer rates among Navajo teenagers living near uranium spills were reported to be 17 times higher than the national average, there were high levels of lead poisoning among African-American children in inner city housing projects, and birth defects and high cancer rates among Latino children of farm workers exposed to pesticides.

In 1992, the Southwest Network, an eight-state coalition of hundreds of multi-racial community-based organizations and individuals, formally accused the EPA, which has “trustee” responsibility for Indians through its Department of the Interior, of environmental racism by allowing harmful industrial and government facilities to be disproportionately located on reservations, as well as in communities of color and low income.

At Fort Belknap, evidence that Pegasus Gold Inc., a multinational cyanide heap-leach gold mine, threatens water quality and the health of humans and wildlife (not to mention Native cultural and sacred sites) in the Little Rocky Mountains, has finally been recognized by the Billings Federal Court. Now, the former Canadian-based multinational must pay a landmark $36.7 million dollar pollution settlement over the next five years to come into compliance with state and federal water quality laws.

According to the Billings Gazette, Pegasus violated federal and state laws by discharging acidic metal-laden wastewater from its mines in the Little Rocky Mountains into water draining into the Milk and Missouri Rivers. The maximum fine could have exceeded $100 million. Still, the settlement is the largest a mining outfit has had to pay in Montana’s history. The Gazette reports, “The mine must expand their mine waste water treatment and put up a $32 million bond to ensure that is done; pay a $2 million civil penalty that will be evenly divided between the state and federal governments; pay $1 million to the Fort Belknap tribes in partial settlement of their separate claims; and perform supplemental environmental projects estimated to cost $1.7 million.”

Back to business as usual, the state gave the go-ahead this October for extending the life of the Zortman mine five to eight more years, and its neighbor three miles away, the Landusky mine, for another year. According to Sandi Olsen of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), total disturbance will increase to 2,195 acres; an additional 7.6 million tons of ore and 7 million tons of waste rock will be mined from the Landusky mine; 80 million tons of ore and 60 million tons of waste rock will be mined from the Zortman mine.

That the Racicot administration has now allowed for an expansion of the mine, to more than double its size, comes as no surprise to environmental activists and the Fort Belknap community who’ve documented the mine’s unchecked, flagrant violations for years.

To tribal activists, the record of slow or non-existent regulatory action from the Department of State Lands, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Environmental Protection Agency has a long, tired history which has consistently pointed to a disturbing trend of discrimination in the region.

It has led some, like Jim Jensen, President of the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC), to declare “There’s such an extraordinary pattern here of failure to enforce that it seems to me that at some point down the road there should be some discussion of whether or not there has actually been a conspiracy between this company and some individuals or agencies.”

In 1991 the Billings Gazette quoted Jensen and Wil Patric, of the Mineral Policy Center, as citing 31 leaks, spills, and other environmental problems at the ZL mine over 13 years that allegedly went unpunished by department officials.

Indeed, since its opening in 1979 and its expansion through ten amendments to the original permit—none with the benefit of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) until now—the Zortman-Landusky mine has been plagued by an extraordinary number of serious problems and noncompliances. The litany includes cyanide leaks and spills, contaminated groundwater, a ruined aquifer, heap-leach pad mass stability failures, and bird and wildlife deaths. Prior to this year’s settlement, only one $15,000 fine by the Water Quality Bureau in 1982 was ever levied against ZL, when cyanide appeared in nearby domestic water supply taps.

Leaking containment pond and water drainage emanating from the mine. Photos by Jonathan Smart.

Leaking containment pond and water drainage emanating from the mine. Photos by Jonathan Smart.


In late August 1993, the Department of Health and Environmental Sciences filed a lawsuit against Pegasus, alleging the mining company was violating the state water quality law. Robert J. Thompson, special assistant to the attorney general who handled the case for DHES, stated in the Phillip County News that the decision to file suit was prompted by the actions of two groups on the reservation, Red Thunder and Island Mountain Protectors (IMP).

Earlier these two tribal groups had filed citizen suits charging Pegasus with violating the Federal Clean Water Act. By DHES filing suit “on behalf of such concerned citizens,” they effectively knocked RTI and IMP out of the courtroom. RTI’s lawyer, Don Marble, believed this lightened the pressure and enforcement of Pegasus in court.

In the article, Thompson acknowledged that the violations cited in the suit had been public knowledge for some time and that Zortman Mining, Inc. had been making an effort to deal with them “but not entirely to our satisfaction.” And yet DHES still needed the actions of RTI and IMP to prompt them to file suit.

Eric Williams, public relations coordinator for Pegasus at the time, relayed the company’s intent to work with the state and added, “We weren’t surprised” by the suit. He added, “We are going to do everything we can within reason not only to continue these operations but to obtain our mine life extension permit.” Williams continued, “We see the request for those permits (discharge permits which strangely allow for the seepage of wastes) more as a policy change by the agencies. The agencies have known for some time and in some instances for several years that we have those minimal discharges up there…up until this point they haven’t said ‘you need those…discharge permits’.”

In early 1994 BLM officials admitted what Indian activist groups already suspected; that acids and metals were damaging all drainages emanating from the mine. RTI had obtained documentation showing that sulfide ores—which cause acid mine drainage—had been mined, despite the fact that the ZL’s permit was for oxide ore only. Pegasus was neither permitted nor bonded for mining sulfide ores and the operation was not designed to handle acids.

It should be noted that the ZL has the distinction of being the lowest grade gold mine in the U.S. This means that it is disturbing more ground for minute quantities of gold than any other mine (more than 60 tons of earth must be excavated for every ounce of gold that is recovered). Despite Pegasus’s record of unchecked hazards, the recent approval of its expansion allows sulfide ores to be mined—”officially.”

Olsen said, having completed the EIS for Pegasus expansion in March, the DEQ’s role is to monitor the mine to make sure it complies with state law. She said that source controls (like capping and soil barriers) and water treatment plans are in operation to prevent acid mine drainage from occurring. When asked about the risk of AMD in mining sulfides, Olsen offered, “it depends on the sulfides and their reactivity.” But what about AMD problems that went unheeded in the past? “We thought there was less of it [AMD] than there actually was,” she admitted.

For tribal activists, it seems that in spite of their efforts to diligently document violations of the mine and prepare litigation, Pegasus continues to get away with murder. Ever-present is the fear that Pegasus could pull out after gold deposits dry up, allowing the ZL mines to go bankrupt, and leave a superfund site in their wake. To add to the frustration, the Clean Water Initiative (I22) failed to win enough votes on November’s ballot (the mining industry having raised the lion’s share of 2.2 million in its campaign against the initiative).

Gary Buchanan, of Montanans for Clean Water, said I22 was launched after the 1995 legislature rewrote several laws to weaken state water-quality standards for some 100 cancer-causing materials. I22 would have required greater amounts of carcinogens, toxins, and other pollutants to be removed from mine run-off before discharging into water supplies.


In August 1994, I accompanied a Denver Post reporter to Zortman, a small town on the south side of the reservation consisting of a bar, diner, motel, trailer park, and store.

That day we interviewed the business owners of Zortman—all of whom said they derived 99 percent of their business from the mine (1 percent from tourists, hunters, and government employees). They made it clear that without Pegasus, Zortman would be a ghost town.

As a summation of public sentiment, the storeowner pointed at a cap he sold which read: Save Montana’s Endangered Species: Ranchers, Miners, Loggers, and Sportsmen. Zortman’s inhabitants claimed that there had never been any cyanide spills at the mine, thanks to over 200 monitor wells, and that there was no problem with heavy metals. Any problems in the past with old mine tailings floating down King Creek had been graciously cleaned up, courtesy of Pegasus. They derided RTI as a radical group, or as another so eloquently put it, “assholes with moccasins.”

The store-owner stated proudly that the mine extracts 100,000 ounces of gold each year. “People need logs for their houses and gold for their rings,” he concluded. Eighty-five percent of our nation’s gold supply is used to fill this most indispensable of needs—jewelry. Walking back to the car, I read the bumper stickers plastered on the many parked pick-ups. “If it can’t be grown, mine it!” “What would the U.S. do without Zortman?”


The Red Road

The traditionalist peoples of Fort Belknap voice that the significance of the Little Rocky Mountains rests upon the idea of the sacred. The mountains provide a physical landscape upon which the human animal can communicate with the spirit world.

Virgil McConnell, an Assiniboine elder and healer, told how sometimes someone may come and ask you to help them and you’re not sure what medicines they need. So you sweat or go to a lodge and pray. Still, nothing may come. So you have a dream and in it you may see the medicine or hear a voice.

Once Virgil heard a voice and all it said was, “Go to the mountains.” So he went. He prayed and fasted for three days. On the last day a wolf came to him with the medicine in its front paws and offered it to him. This was the cure.

Virgil wants to protect the sacred sites in the Little Rockies. The mine is steadily encroaching over the mountain range and threatening an abundance of spiritual resources. Old vision quest sites and fasting shelters are being obliterated. Animals who bring messages and guidance are being poisoned, as are the healing waters and medicinal plants.

“All the knowledge you need is up in the mountains and will never die as long as the spirits there live on,” Virgil has told me. “The only thing we pray for is to let the Great Spirit open their eyes to see the destruction, and soften their hearts so they can feel the utter pain our great mother earth has to endure because of greed and dishonesty.”

He pointed out a fork on top of the Sundance lodge, above the Thunderbird’s nest. It represents two roads; one is the shorter, easier path, the longer fork is the road of hardship but great strength. This is the Red Road, the road of resistance, whereupon the traditionalist peoples of the Fort Belknap reservation continue today to fight for their way of life.

From:Z Net – The Spirit Of Resistance Lives

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